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Meth labs flourish in ‘dry’ counties

A study of the density of methamphetamine (meth) labs across the US has revealed they are more common in “dry” counties leading the writers to ask whether legalising the sale of alcohol would help cut the production and use of the drug.

In a study entitled Breaking Bad: Are meth labs justified in dry counties? authors, Jose Fernandez, Stephan Gohmann and Joshua Pinkston of the University of Louisville, looked at the spread of meth labs across the US and then the effect the reintroduction of sales of alcohol in dry counties in Kentucky would have on meth use and production.

In conclusion they suggested that the reintroduction of alcohol sales in these districts could lead to a drop in meth production of 17-30%.

Because meth labs do not, as a rule, announce their locations, the study’s authors relied instead on those discovered by police to build a picture of where they were most common.

As reported by The Economist, the common thread was that meth labs proliferated in areas that were poor, white and evangelical – and often where alcohol is still prohibited. In this respect it chimed with a similar survey from 2010.

Although Prohibition ended in 1933, local governments were allowed to continue to implement the ban on booze and many counties across the US remain “dry” to this day.

In Kentucky, out of 120 counties in the state, 53 have some sort of restriction on sales of alcohol while 31 ban its sale altogether.

The worst states for meth production – or at least those with the more hapless meth producers were Missouri and Indiana where over 1,000 meth labs had been uncovered. States with between 500-1,000 labs included: Florida, Tennessee, North Carolina, Ohio, Michigan and Illinois. Oklahoma, Alabama, Kentucky, Virginia, Pennsylvania, New York and South Carolina had 50-500 labs.

It’s notable as well that states at the heart of the US’s craft brewing scene such as Washington, Oregon and Colorado had less than 10 discovered labs – as did New Mexico the fictional home of Breaking Bad’s Walter White (pictured).

One argument between social scientists is to what extent alcohol and drugs are substitutes for each other or whether they are complementary. The authors of the report argued that meth was a clear substitute for alcohol. As the Economist explained: “The authors argue that local prohibitions lower the price of drugs such as meth relative to alcohol. This is hard to prove, because dry counties share many traits with counties that have meth problems.”

Nonetheless, the trio observed: “Alcohol bans flatten the punishment gradient for alcohol drinkers to engage in other illicit activities, thus encouraging illicit drug use by raising the relative price of a substitute.”

Taking into account factors such as income, poverty, population density and race and recognising that the sale of alcohol can lead to its own problems, the researchers claimed that legalising alcohol in Kentucky would cut meth production in the completely dry counties by 37% and by 25% across the state as a whole.

The full study can be read here.

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